Editor's Note: I have just returned from New York where I participated in a host of activities surrounding the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. I am not naïve; I know that the NPT was conceived out of avarice and power, and a desire of the nuclear weapons states (led by the U.S.) to keep others out of the exclusive nuclear club. 45 years of empty promises has convinced me that the nuclear weapons states will not live up to their moral or legal responsibilities to disarm without a groundswell of global citizen-led pressure. Ray Acheson's editorial below is a concise perspective on our responsibility in navigating the road ahead.
Ray Acheson is Director of Critical Will, a project of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Learn more (and keep up with this year's NPT Review Conference) at the Reaching Critical Will website.
Editorial: We the people
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF
Last week more than 900 women and men from 80 countries gathered in The Hague to celebrate 100 years of peacemaking with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and to set a new agenda for peace for the 21st century. Now WILPF is in New York at the NPT Review Conference. Our participation in these very different conferences has one thing in common: our intention is to confront and challenge the structures of power that privilege the few over the many, that undermine international law, and that impede human security.
WILPF’s 100th anniversary conference strongly confronted the corporate and military take-over of governments and the resulting preservation of power over the protection of human beings. “The UN Charter states ‘We the people,’ not ‘I, the hegemonic nation state’,” declared Madeleine Rees, WILPF’s Secretary General. The Charter and the rest of the UN system and body of international law surrounding it are designed to promote peace over violence, law over war.
But this system is not working effectively against the structures of power that prevent the achievement of peace and justice. The NPT has also failed in this regard.
The NPT demands that every effort be made to “avert the devastation of a nuclear war” and to take measures that would “safeguard the security of peoples”. It requires the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons and the total elimination of all stockpiles of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.
Yet five states parties continue to possess and even modernise and extend the lives of their nuclear weapons, while another 30 or so include nuclear weapons in their security doctrines.
The possession of nuclear weapons, argued South Africa’s delegation, privileges the security interests of a few states “at the expense of the rest of humanity.” And these few are so far unwilling to relinquish this particular tool of domination. The five NPT nuclear-armed state parties reiterated last week that “an incremental, step-by-step approach is the only practical and realistic option for making progress towards nuclear disarmament, while upholding global strategic security and stability.” 26 of their nuclear-dependent allies proclaimed the need to work “methodically and with realism,” imperiously asserting, “There are no short cuts.”
If these states were actually engaged in serious, concrete, time-bound, transparent, verifiable actions for nuclear disarmament, they might have a leg to stand on. But they are not. And their security doctrines assert the importance of nuclear weapons for security—principally, for deterring conflict by threatening massive nuclear violence.
The idea that nuclear weapons can prevent conflict or afford security to anyone has been firmly rejected by the vast majority of governments. And there is a new sense of empowerment developing amongst the peoples and governments of countries that reject nuclear weapons. While some states, such as Belgium, continue to believe that “nuclear disarmament will happen when nuclear-weapon states will no longer feel the need to have them,” most have shaken off this submissive position and are demanding real change, now.
We are told that we are being divisive by doing so. But just as we must stand up to those who abuse and then blame their victims for their abhorrent behaviour, we must reject this accusation. We must not accept a framing that a ban treaty is polarising or divisive, said the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in its statement to the Review Conference. “Adopting a new international legal standard to prohibit nuclear weapons is a responsibility.”
It is everyone’s responsibility to challenge power and privilege and to fight for the rights of humanity over the interests of a few states. Whether we are at a women’s peace conference aimed at stopping war and violence or at a treaty review conference focused on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, this responsibility lies at the centre of all of our actions. Whether banning nuclear weapons or standing up to patriarchy we are demanding and designing a better world for all.
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